Hours of Lead


Radka Denemarková

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

According to the Master Sun Tzu, officers who have not received proper training will be overcome by fear and confusion on the battlefield. If army generals are not thoroughly prepared for their role, their souls will be seized by anxiety when they come face-to-face with the enemy. And according to the Master Jiří Kolář we should write but a single word each day; a letter to a president is not just any old letter, our writing must be neat and there must be no spelling mistakes: what would he think of us if it were not carefully written . . . So we shall write with a body that comes face-to-face with the enemy unprepared.

A guard watches a prisoner’s body through a peephole. The prisoner calmly tells him not to be rude to his cellmates; he himself sleeps peacefully in a cell shared with others and meekly and uncomplainingly empties a full enamel bucket. The guard finds his very existence provocative. He finds his meekness, decency, and politeness provocative. But what he finds most provocative of all is that the prisoner sounds well-educated and won’t indulge in foul language; even here he remains one of the elect, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, never swearing at anyone, however much the guard would like him to. But the mask is bound to slip sooner or later, the guard can wait. That is all he can do, because the prisoner’s name, Václav Havel, is known the world over.

The Chinese Girl grew up in a country of joy, obedience, and achievement; all of a sudden, she saw her homeland through the eyes of a foreigner. She saw a country of fear, anger, and control. One and the same country. Dissent is punished. Anyone who does not join our long march is on a short march against us. Censors and bureaucrats are far more vigilant and inventive here than they have ever been in the Writer’s country. It is much harder to get to the essence. The codes, hints, oblique allusions, and vague parallels are more sophisticated. Censors and the bureaucrats of propaganda have little trouble deciphering banned characters because they are the ones who release them into the world. Their sweeping brushstrokes infect signs with a squashy fear.

A meteorite drops unexpectedly from the heavens, landing in the mortal realm. On June 4, the Chinese Girl lays a bouquet of yellow roses in Tiananmen Square. She remains alone for just ten seconds before being arrested: tourists don’t even manage to snap a photo. She parrots quotes that have been weaponised and poses questions of a guileless, astonished child; a web of unsophisticated sophistication. She lays bare the truth that is her mind. That is how simple it is. Only truly sensitive people can detect the subtle shifts in the general mental and moral mindset which the majority fails to notice.

She is forbidden to continue her studies. She is allowed to cooperate, that is to say, to become an informer. That is the precondition for her parents, her grandma, and her Fiancé being left alone; they will put her on the preparatory committee of a student congress, give her a chance to prove her mettle by working for young, progressive communists. They will keep the modicum of criticism voiced at the congress on a leash of lead because such criticism will also be centrally orchestrated.

“I won’t take part in preparing a student congress or work for an organisation that doesn’t allow me to pursue my studies.”

“But this is your chance to prove yourself, to redeem yourself. If the congress goes well, we will restore student societies and journals.”

The second time she is apprehended is while visiting her grandmother in the provinces. Her body is hauled off by the local security forces and sent straight into detention. Her letters are sent along with her body, as unmistakable proof of her identity. The only one she has.

A letter to her Fiancé.

An open letter to the chairman of the National People’s Congress.

An open letter to the President.

An open letter to the Prime Minister.

The Chinese Girl has no time to keep a diary. She is lied to by her interrogator. She is lied to by the defence lawyer assigned to her. She doesn’t know that her letters have failed to reach their addressees, she is buffeted by strange, psychotic states. She is made to feel guilty. Her letters have hurt many people, visiting dreadful misfortunes upon them.

She refuses to sign anything. The first sentences of her interrogation bear no resemblance to the written record thrust before her nose; the police officer just shrugs his shoulders. With arrogant sangfroid he signs the statement on her behalf, right in front of her. He can manufacture the fingerprint of any prisoner at will.

She is sentenced to eighty-eight days of forced labour.

“Why have I been sentenced to forced labour?”

“We have been instructed to detain you. The rest is not our problem.”

They try to wheedle information out of her. Deluge her with sentences like seas of the north. An endless wooing.

“Who put you up to it?

What group are you a member of?

What else are you planning?

In whose pay are you?

Who has recruited you?

How much does your Fiancé know?

How much does your mother know?

How much does your father know?

Why were you in touch with the western Writer, what did she tell you?

What ideas did the Friend put into your head?”

They are fuming. The girl has demanded democratisation, uncensored books and journals, while steering clear of political debate which would only boil down to submitting to male power, accepting dogmas, adopting a particular kind of language.

“Which western countries, which embassies are behind those letters? Talk, talk, talk.”

The Girl intends no political confrontation on a global scale. This is her own private struggle. Her first attempt not to drown in compromise. She revels in her brave and open act of resistance, there is no way back for her. No return to pointless arguments behind the scenes about what needs to be sacrificed in order for something else to be preserved.

“For a juster China.”

“If you think so. But your view is one-sided.”

“It has to be one-sided. It’s the view from the side I’m on.”

While she is held in pre-trial detention she is expelled from university. Her parents’ flat is trashed. Her personal effects, including textbooks, piano, computer, mobile, the notes for her dissertation on the function of the thyroid gland. They don’t find very much. Her mother had tidied up her room, obediently handing over any suspect items and disposing of the odds and ends of the past. The daughter has tidied up her head; she too has disposed of the odds and ends of the past. Her money is taken away. Her bank and savings accounts are cancelled. Her parents repent. They renounce their daughter. Nobody is allowed to support her. Anyone who supports her, be it with money or words, will end up like her. Nobody is allowed to give her any money, even if she should starve to death; money eludes the family in need. She is left standing alone, burdened with the weight of her freedom. Burdened with her vision of a dignified and meaningful life. It is a hopeless enterprise. But all good things usually start out as hopeless enterprises. She has written letters, just as Václav Havel did before her. The letters brought her inner liberation, thrusting her into freedom, and now she is experiencing the paradoxical post-prison despair of a returnee thrust onto the absurd terrain of freedom. But what freedom? Has she come back to life as it truly is? Banished from everywhere, publicly labelled an enemy. All over the world the principal tool of reeducating those who are unreeducatable is all-round bullying. Even her diffident politeness is regarded as provocative. As is her decency. Restraint. Self-control. Humility. Even as she lies quietly asleep alongside her cellmates, even as she uncomplainingly empties the enamel bucket. The guards find her very existence provocative.

She hears the rustling of black feathers on the eaves; she can’t eat. She is charged with subversive activities, but her trial is postponed. All she can do is withdraw into the wings. She becomes a one-person ghetto. No one sympathises with her because barely anyone knows about her. The few who do take great care not to have anything to do with her. This whole business seems very, very, very dangerous indeed.

They are horrified by the sincerity of her intentions. She blends sentences from The Great Learning with quotes from Václav Havel. “Things have their roots and their branches. Affairs have their ends and their beginnings. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.”         

She keeps repeating over and over again that the argument in the sentences of The Great Learning represents the stages of a journey to the attainment of the moral energy that the Confucians call De and the rest of the world virtue: state, family, personality, mind, intention, understanding, analysis. From knowledge, through the analysis of the objective world, towards understanding. From a simple ability to understand to the true admission of intent, the prerequisite of an orderly mind which is, in turn, the prerequisite of nurturing the kind of personality without which there can’t be a proper family, the precondition of a well-run state. At the apex of this pyramid stands the state. The Chinese Girl’s wings are clipped, the party is not interested in her virtuousness; the party takes the mysterious Chinese Girl seriously for one reason alone. That she won’t be easily intimidated. That behind her there is no group, no collective body of work, that she is not interested in blowing her own trumpet. She has sent forth the word.

“Silly girl, surely you don’t expect us to believe you have no group behind you?”

Havel’s words imbued her letters with an additional moral dimension, which no one else could have done. They interrogate her and rejoice. Her boundless naiveté will make it easier for the centre of power to launch a broad-based counterattack. The Chinese Communist Party has learned its lessons and knows that before 1968 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had misjudged the situation, down to the smallest detail, such as the crackdown on Tvář, the young writers’ journal. Very soon, at the Writers’ Congress, this gave rise to criticism from an unexpected quarter, the radicalised progressive communists’ weekly, Literární noviny.

“Tell me the main reason for my arrest. I meant well.”

“We’re the ones asking the questions here.”

“I meant well. For a juster China."

“The Chinese people are gagging with revulsion and hatred of you. The Chinese people are throwing up. You are a rabid dog and a dog deserves to die a dog’s death.”

“Confucius said that when the noblest of the noble, that is, the Emperor, transgresses against basic virtues, those of a noble rank are entitled to rise up against the Emperor to restore harmony between society and the will of the heavens.”

She resists twenty hours of a concentrated barrage of questions from interrogators in grey suits and white shirts. They take turns in her dungeon and after twenty hours of lead take her to a large windowless room. A chair is cemented into the middle of the concrete floor in the empty room. They place the Chinese Girl on the chair and tie her down. Her body is laced together with cross-stitch. The chair is still, it gives a yawn, it is long used to methodical sewing and stitching. It offers the swaddled body firm, steely support. The uniforms circle around, eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by the toe, if she hollers, punch her more, eeny, meeny, miny, moe. With the swing of an arm they give her a karate chop in the kidneys. A voice croaks into her right ear, another chirrups into her left, a serpent’s breath hisses into the middle of her forehead. The trio doesn’t believe that it was her own idea to write the letters or that she has written them herself; someone must have put her up to it. Someone must have held her dainty hand, directing the slender calligraphy brush. Someone else in the background must have been the practical organiser, out with the names, girl, tell us who you are hiding. Don’t worry, girl, just hold out your kidneys and face. It was Western agents who put you up to it. Their names, girl, those splendid names, what are you really up to?

The wooing continues for a second and a third and a fourth interminable day, she has to sign a new statement of the Conventions of Beijing which bears no relation to her actual statements or to what she has said in her letters. The interrogators thrust a piece of paper with names in front of her swollen nose and bloodied lips. It was the people on this list who put you up to it, wasn’t it, girl, don’t be afraid, our lovely.

With one blue eye she tries to make out names that don’t ring any bells.

They link the girl’s story to other cases. Just because some sentences in her letters are identical to sentences written by an unreeducatable writer whose wife takes photographs of dolls with broken limbs. The identical sentences which all these unreeducatables use to add spice to their courageous letters are quotes from Václav Havel. Surely that can’t be a coincidence! It's not a coincidence!

The hands at the end of the swinging arms smash into a house. The house is a birdcage, a little bird is trapped in the cage: she is the wife of the imprisoned dissident and intellectual Liu Xiaobo. He has read Havel’s writing, has parroted his words, leading astray and rallying opponents of the regime. They confiscate his passport and lock his body up for eleven years. According to their logic his wife must have read the letters too. Presumption is proof.

All of these people will be linked to the Chinese Girl. The Chinese Girl will be linked to them; the map of a nationwide conspiracy is being stitched together. Fortunately, unlike the writers, nobody in the world knows her and she is quite sturdy. Endowed with healthy organs that have been checked out.

Her letters provide an excuse for discreet bullying, punishments, insults, humiliation. Gradually everyone has grown accustomed to restrictions and censorship; people surrender to them completely.

The hands at the end of swinging arms smash into many homes. Whatever happened to the idea of the sanctity of one’s home if one can’t find it there? For years now the Lawyer has had to wear a reliable piece of jewellery on his wrist, but who knows. The Lawyer with the wristband defended Liu Xiaobo. Society has taken pains to cure him by fitting him with the wristband; if the weight of lead on his wrist is not enough to keep him in check, he will be detained.

Locking up a body in a prison or a madhouse is not the worst thing that can happen.

The worst thing is excluding a body from life by branding it with a wristband while the body is at liberty.

The Lawyer no longer practises his profession. He submits to everything, he no longer cares. Society has no use for him. He has no use for himself. A new self is imposed on him by society.

The chain of unreeducatables expands. It crisscrosses the country, stitching it together; the black carrion crows detect secret connections, conspiracies, acts of collective treason, provincial charters everywhere, even though no such things exist. They concoct evidence of links with the Chinese Girl; a dummy Trojan horse without a pedigree. A body without a name is a welcome excuse; once and for all they rip those annoying weeds from the blossoming, harmonious and stabilised garden, they crack down on an unprecedentedly dangerous pattern of behaviour of people walking upright. Forget your protests, letters, or appeals. The Chinese Girl is a deviation, a reject. The objective meaning of the word deviationist is criminal, two deviationists who have banded together are factionalists. Which, objectively speaking, is a similar offence.

Except that it carries a harsher sentence.

They don’t want to lock up the Chinese Girl or the Lawyer. Imprisonment only increases international interest in prisoners like them. The prison administration is inundated with petitions, letters, articles, postcards, unreadable letters in foreign languages and global signs; so much extra work. They have nothing against foreign languages. They just wish there was only one foreign language.

translated from the Czech by Julia and Peter Sherwood

Click here to read an essay by Radka Denemarková on translating Herta Müller, and here to read Herta Müller's tribute to Radka Denemarková, The Space between Languages, both from the Spring 2014 issue.